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You Are It And It Is Nothing

Left panel, Shōrin-zu byōbu (松林図 屏風, Pine Trees screen) by Hasegawa Tōhaku, 16th century. Public Domain.

“Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?” (Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.4.658) Lear may not have been able to make use of nothing, but Joseph Campbell certainly did. In Campbell’s book, Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, the idea of nothingness—nothing, no-thingness—is one of the important concepts to grasp:

What can we say of this strange thing that happens between here and here, so that here there is nothing? You cannot say a thing either is or is not. The things are no things, there is nothing there. (Myths of Light, 73)

Nothing is a difficult notion to work with; it is antithetical to the sort of materialistic, dualistic thinking to which most of us are accustomed. The nothingness that Campbell refers to is not merely the negation of being, but rather it is the ground of everything, the ground of grounds, “since it throws all beings into their limits.” (Martin Heidegger, The Principles of Reason)

In this volume Campbell tells a delightful story about a young student who is stymied in his attempt to see his guru who lives on the other side of an overflowing, flooded river. The student says, “My teacher is the vehicle of truth to me, he is my god, he is my oracle, I will think about my teacher and I’ll walk across the water, and so I did. I thought, Guru, guru, guru,” and he successfully walked across the flooded river atop its engorged waters. Well, the guru was a bit gob smacked by his student’s disclosure, and Campbell tells us:

When the student goes, the teacher thinks this was in him. He says, “I’ll go to try this thing. I’ve got to see how this works.” So he looks around to see if anybody’s watching. When he is sure he is alone, he goes down to the water and looks at the rushing torrent. He thinks, I’m going to do it. He thinks, I, I, I. He steps out onto the river. . .and he sinks like a stone.The only reason one can walk across water is that there is nobody there; one is pure spirit, spiritus, wind. In Sanskrit, this is pråna. That teacher in the student’s mind was a communicator of truth. In his own mind, he was an “I,” and an “I” has weight and sinks. (Myths of Light, 113-114)

The “I,” the ego, can be a problematic psychic organ largely because it is so intransigently subjective and not particularly prone to mindful reflection. Ego psychologists tended to describe ego as the subjective experience we have of ourselves, which is certainly the idea of ego that generally permeates the West, certainly the U.S. Generally speaking, one’s ego provides a way of thinking of oneself as a being in the world and holding a general perspective of life—a sense of self-familiarity, continuity, and individuality. As Campbell puts it, “an ‘I’ has weight and sinks.” It is as if one’s being is a precipitate that falls into the world.

Martin Heidegger had doubts about the efficacy of the concept of ego, pointing out that, contra Descartes, there are more ways of being than simply thinking. The idea of ego wasn’t enough for Heidegger, it didn’t adequately capture the totality of the being that experiences the world. Therefore, he used the word Dasein, which literally means “there-being.” Dasein is “that entity in its Being which we know of as human life; […] the entity that we each ourselves are, which each of us finds in the fundamental assertion: I am.” (The Concept of Time, 6/112) Heidegger describes Dasein as accompanied by a sense of “Throwness,” of being thrown into the world regardless of whether we want to be in the world or not. It’s rather like Campbell’s guru sinking like a stone; it’s what happened to guru, and was going to happen to him, despite his fondest wishes.

From where do we sink? From where are we thrown? Campbell says that Being is a great mystery, “beyond which you cannot look.” (Myths of Light, 135) At least for me, this is very similar to Heidegger’s nothingness, which is the ground of everything; everything is contained in It, and It projects Being or Dasein into the world whether we want to be in the world or not. No-thingness, as Campbell’s guru will attest, is not something we can master, we only respond to it.

For Heidegger, Dasein is not, in itself, an actuality but is rather the disclosure of no-thingness. As Campbell put it,

You are it and it is nothing. It is a very difficult thing to tell anyone about because the words themselves suggest that there is a meaning here, but the thing is just to get it, and that is why you can’t communicate or teach [it]: you can only bring a person up to it. (Myths of Light, 135)

Asian mythologies are remarkably compatible with Heidegger’s philosophy. In each, Nothing and no-thingness are not negations, but the language they use is often hard to grasp. But it is “awfully easy,” Campbell says, “to sympathize with and go with because anything you are doing is it […] and you realize that the whole mystery and void is shining through at you, you are there.” (136)

Thanks for reading,


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